tanford’s second consecutive BCS bowl likely won’t be another 28-point blowout. The team on the other sideline this year, Oklahoma State, came within a fluky double-overtime loss of playing in the national championship game. The Cowboys ran through what the polls say was one of the country’s best conferences, the Big 12, and didn’t have much difficulty doing so. Their best player has won the last two Biletnikoff Awards and their quarterback was a legitimate Heisman candidate for much of the season. In short, Oklahoma State will give Stanford a much harder fight than Virginia Tech did last January, and OSU is arguably the best team on Stanford’s 2011 schedule.
Mike Gundy’s team owes the vast majority of its success to the offense, where the Cowboys differentiate themselves from all but a handful of other teams around America. Defensively, the Cowboys won’t turn many heads. The team’s scoring and total defense statistics place it right in the middle of FBS programs, with an average of 383 yards and 26 points allowed per game. Its chief virtue its is uncanny big-play capacity. Oklahoma State led all FBS schools with 42 forced turnovers in 2011, beating the next-closest school by 3. Despite a nationally-average turnover rate on offense, the team enters the Fiesta Bowl with the best turnover margin in the Big 12 and the second-best in the country with a +1.67 turnovers per game rate.
Those extra possessions feed an offense that didn’t need much help to start with. The Cowboy attack is no doubt pass-heavy: OSU’s Air Raid scheme produced an offense that collected well over two-thirds of its production through the air. 28-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden turned in the best season of his distinguished collegiate career while completing 73% of his passes. Weeden enjoys a bevy of receiving weapons and the majority of his snaps from the shotgun. Justin Blackmon, the aforementioned star, is the clear-cut #1 target, but fellow junior Tracy Moore and senior Josh Cooper have also been effective alternatives this season and last.
Stanford has had plenty of chances to get used to defending elite receivers this fall. Washington State’s Marquess Wilson, Arizona’s Juron Criner, USC’s Robert Woods and Notre Dame’s Malcolm Floyd have all lined up opposite Cardinal defensive backs this season. The unique challenge of slowing down Blackmon comes from his speed, size and physicality beside the other talents in the Oklahoma State receiving corps. Blackmon hasn’t been held to fewer than 90 receiving yards in a game since before Halloween and was good for 112 yards per game in the season’s final five contests. With roughly a month for Blackmon to rest and for the Oklahoma State coaching staff to devise a game plan, it’s hard to imagine the junior not getting his catches and yardage against a Stanford secondary that has struggled against elite speed.
Despite Oklahoma State’s philosophical emphasis on passing, the ground game in Stillwater has also been both effective and consistent. Lead back Joseph Randle managed a gaudy 6.0 yards per carry over the course of the regular season and locked up his first career 1000-yard season with a week to spare. Often overshadowed by the attention paid to the Weeden-Blackmon duo, Randle was a 4-star recruit out of Kansas in the Class of 2010 and got offers from a wide range of schools–including Stanford. He’s turned into a prospective high-round NFL draft pick in 2013 or 2014 who, while not taking carries from the shotgun, presents another option for Weeden as a check-down receiver. Randle ranks 4th on the team in receptions this season, thanks in no small part to his 9-catch, 99-yard day in the receiving game alone against Arizona in Week 2. The true sophomore back is not the most important piece in the Cowboy offense, but his consistency running the ball forces opposing defenses to keep additional players in the box, thereby opening up lanes for Weeden and his receivers.
Oklahoma State will score, so look for Stanford to open up the playbook and try some things that David Shaw and the coaching staff didn’t show during the regular season. The OSU defense is one of the country’s worst at stopping the pass despite their impressive ability to generate turnovers. Opponents this season have put up 266 passing yards per game against the Cowboys and OSU allows more big plays than virtually any other top-level team.
So enter Andrew Luck. In his final game for Stanford, Luck should have the brightest green light of 2011 to let the ball fly against a secondary that might be opportunistic, but certainly is not outstanding. Stanford will get Stepfan Taylor and the rest of the running backs involved, no doubt, and use long drives to tire out the OSU defense and keep the Cowboy offense on the sideline. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be plenty of times when Shaw, who is adamant about proving that he has the best quarterback in college football, will test OSU deep and look to end some drives with a touchdown in a hurry. Luck will also have all three of his tight ends–Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo–on the field and at full health. With Chris Owusu ruled out of the bowl game after repeated concussions earlier in the season, the tight ends might become the Card’s biggest downfield threats.
All in all, it’s pretty safe to say that barring a very strange series of events, neither defense will win the Fiesta Bowl. In this pairing of college football’s #3 vs. #4, points are going to go up and, unlike some other marquee games this year, touchdowns will be scored. In a close one, expect the leadership and BCS bowl experience of Stanford to help the Card pull out another victory.
Verdict: Stanford beats Oklahoma State, 38-35
How to Follow the Game
5:30 pm PST, Monday, January 2
University of Phoenix Stadium
Live: Tickets at StubHub
Radio: KNBR (1050 AM)
Social Media: @DailyAxe on Twitter